The Leander Professional Firefighters Association aims to bring civil service guidelines before a public vote.
The group delivered a petition Feb. 15 to the city with 137 supporters’ signatures. If at least 123 signatures—10 percent of the voters from the last municipal election—are verified, the measure will be on the May ballot.
Civil service rules establish standards within fire and police departments for sick and vacation time and for the hiring, firing and promotion of employees. Voters can adopt civil service with a simple majority.
The association, which is made up of all but a few career members of the Leander Fire Department, voted to pursue the initiative in November, though the idea had been researched the past four years, President Kirke Phillips said. In January, City Council and the association met to discuss the initiative, which is strongly opposed by the city manager and most members of council.
“I have to look at this as it affects 27 firefighters, but we are elected to represent more than 30,000 residents,” Councilwoman Andrea Navarrette said. “I do not see that it benefits the city in any way. And to me, that does not make sense, and I will not stand by something like that.”
Under civil service rules, firefighters who earn the top test scores are admitted and promoted “unless there is a valid reason” a second- or third-highest scoring tester should instead be hired or promoted. In that instance, the fire chief must provide a “good and sufficient reason” why the highest scorer was not selected.
Association member Matt Shapiro said due process improves the morale, recruitment and retention of quality career firefighters and keeps favoritism and politics out of personnel matters.
“I think it’s mostly preventative, but there have been some instances where we weren’t sure why this person was disciplined differently than another person. It’s also something that we want to make sure over the next 20 or 30 years, it’s done fairly no matter who is city manager, fire chief or on council, because that’s how long we want to serve in Leander,” Shapiro said. “This is about due process, and I think everyone can understand that there’s a problem when the person that disciplines you is the same person you have to appeal to.”
Civil service establishes a small commission of citizens who hear all wrongful discipline and termination claims. The city must also hire a civil service commissioner to oversee the commission and association.
City Manager Kent Cagle said administrative costs including the commissioner, the commission’s budget, attorney and legal fees would total $91,000 annually, a small part of the estimated cost of implementing civil service in Leander, if approved by voters.
“[Fire Chief Bill Gardner and I] took our estimates from experience. We looked at other cities with civil service, the budgets and the money that they spend,” Cagle said. “I think we have a middle-of-the-road projection.”
The association refutes Cagle’s estimate. Phillips said the fees would be closer to $1,000 per year.
The association hired a private auditor who calculated a 2 percent growth in tax values would generate a $215,856 increase in tax income, enough to sustain the association’s added cost estimates.
“As the city grows and more people move into the city, we believe the cost can be absorbed by that growth so that there wouldn’t be any cost impact, tax increase or anything of that nature,” he said. “Of all the surrounding cities, none of them have had a tax increase after electing civil service.”
Compared with the city’s current personnel policies, which handle all city employees the same, civil service provides firefighters additional vacation, sick and workers’ compensation benefits, a protection Phillips said firefighters need. Cagle estimates policy changes under civil service will cost the city an additional $308,006 annually. The association argues it will cost $170,172.
However, both parties agree there are expenses associated with implementing civil service.
“It doesn’t mean there’s going to be an exact commensurate tax increase, but we have to increase revenue some way or cut costs somewhere else,” Cagle said. “For them to say, ‘Well, we know there’s growth, and all of that revenue should go to the fire department,’ to me, that’s very unreasonable. We have needs all across the city.”
Mayor Chris Fielder said he supports the fire department but the added cost is unplanned.
“This is not about supporting the fire department. This is a financial decision,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s $1 or $1 million, if there’s a possibility we’ll have to raise taxes to offset it, I can’t support it.”
Civil service does not include provisions for volunteers, and in a letter to the association, attorney B. Craig Deats said the courts have consistently held that using non–civil service firefighters to perform the same work as employees violates the state’s Civil Service Act. However, once the population reaches 50,000, Leander City Council can approve a meet-and-confer status that allows the association to negotiate with volunteers.
On Jan. 17, City Council unanimously approved an agreement with the Leander Volunteer Fire Department that reinforces the organization’s stance within the city. If voters approve civil service, Cagle said the volunteers will continue working alongside the paid staff without any changes, although the city risks being sued. He estimates replacing the volunteers would cost $609,957 annually.
“We are trying to make the best defense we can to keep them in case civil service passes,” Cagle said. “If none of the firefighters object, we are going to keep going until someone comes in and sues us, and then we’ll fight it.”
Association members insist they want to continue working alongside volunteers, especially because many members also started their careers as unpaid helpers. Because the volunteers are supplementary, Shapiro said the city would not need to hire new firefighters.
“Whether the volunteers are here or not here, we still have seven or eight people on shift every day,” he said. “By city code, we have a minimum staffing of career firefighters, and if volunteers are here or not, we still have to have that truck staffed.”
Joe Singer, representative for the Texas State Association of Fire Fighters, said some civil service departments have been able to work with staff and volunteers.
“There’s no contract. They are just letting them work,” he said.
More than 90 Texas cities have adopted civil service rules for their fire departments including Cedar Park, Georgetown, Round Rock and Austin.
Phillips said if civil service does not pass, the association will try to get the measure on the November ballot.
Updated Feb. 19, 2013, 9:22 p.m. CST City Manager Kent Cagle said the petition reached the required number signatures and City Council must now place civil service on the May ballot.
From left: Leander resident Scott Parsons speaks to Leander Professional Firefighters Association members Nick Popovic (middle) and Jeff Foster about the civil service initiative. Groups of association members collected petition signatures in February.